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Build a parking lot and they will come

Posted: July 27, 2013 - 11:06pm

So, this is how things are supposed to work. Government and businesses working hand-in-hand to create opportunity and growth, and without giving away the store in the process.

News that Bass Pro Shops had selected a site in Columbia County to build a new 50,000-plus-square-foot outdoor and sporting goods store was trumpeted from the heights on Ronald Reagan Drive, accompanied by a good amount of back-slapping and hand shaking, as one might expect.

The next day, Augusta officials had their own crowing to do over another outdoor retail giant, Cabela’s, announcing it was coming to the Villages at Riverwatch development, along with a new 14-screen movie-plex.

This is indeed good news, and those who worked so hard to make it happen deserve to be proud of their accomplishments. A little crowing should be expected.

But what might be most remarkable about the two deals is how little public incentives played in closing them and what that means about the local economy.

Both Cabela’s and Bass Pro Shops have reputations for asking for the moon and stars from local governments before saying ‘yes’ to any proposal. Cities have regularly offered up tens of millions in tax breaks and giveaways to land one of these much coveted stores.

According to a 2012 report by the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, the two competing companies together have received or were promised more than $2.2 billion from taxpayers over a 15-year period.

The last time Bass Pro Shops was being courted in Augusta, it was rumored the incentive package offer exceeded $20 million.

Being a little cynical about such incentives, I fully expected something like that this time, but that wasn’t the case.

The deal worked out by Columbia County Administrator Scott Johnson and McKnight Properties Vice President John Engler amounts to about $2 million in local funds.

That’s primarily the cost of building a big parking lot to accommodate what everyone expects will be hordes of eager shoppers bringing business to the new store.

The county will forgo future tax revenue on the parking lot property – which will be purchased from McKnight by Bass Pro Shops and donated to Columbia County. In turn, the county hopes to reap rewards in sales tax from the outdoor retailer and also from the growth officials are confident it will attract.

As Commission Chairman Ron Cross put it, “It’s not what means to us today, but what it will mean to us in 5, 10 or 15 years.”

Sure, the county has offered some other incentives, basically a low-cost loan in the form of revenue bonds, but Bass Pro Shops says it has access to investors that won’t make that necessary. Considering what other communities have offered up, it looks like a bargain.

As for Cabela’s, officials weren’t ready to put a dollar figure on it yet, but it appears the incentive package from Augusta includes the cost of some road and utility work and not much more. Augusta Administrator Fred Russell said his first meeting with the company was on Wednesday, the same day they told him they were intent on opening a new store here by the spring.

Maybe such news means Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s have new way of doing business in which incentives are not as important.

Perhaps. But I think what we can say without a doubt is that these companies have a real desire to be in this community. We can expect others will want to follow.

Robert Bennett, whose job as executive director of the Columbia County Development Authority requires a certain optimism about the local economy, has this to say:

“I’ve been telling people for a while that we are on the brink of a renaissance period. I am convinced of it.”

I, for one, think a little optimism is more than appropriate. I can’t wait to see what happens next.

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Comments (1)

Riverman1

Number One Town in Georgia

Thanks for finding out what the two stores were given by the counties. I was hopeful at the start of your comments that Columbia County hadn’t given too much, but the more I read the less sure I became. Add up all those things and they are pretty significant.

Evans has become the number one town in Georgia because of 3 objective ratings measures: growth, income of residents and public school results. That’s why Bass Pro is coming and it’s also why Cabela's is on the way and the Costco area in West Augusta is growing. It’s not because of the residents in downtown Augusta. It’s because of the large affluent population in Evans. We can afford to be choosy.

I disagree with the description of Columbia County as being on the brink of a renaissance period. We’ve never been this great. We are steadily growing. The best awaits.

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